Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 3
Betty Hamilton (1904–1994)
BETTY Hamilton (neé Berthe Dutoit), one of the earliest generation of Trotskyists, died on 2 May 1994, aged 90. Born in French-speaking Switzerland in 1904, she studied engineering at university in Paris in the 1920s. There she joined the French Communist Party, and very soon became critical of its slavishly Stalinist leadership. She was from 1929 an early member of the International Left Opposition. On marrying an Englishman, Willie Hamilton, she moved to London, and was active in the Trotskyist movement in Britain.
I first met Betty in 1936 when we were both in the Militant Group in the Labour Party. Together with Ralph and Millie Lee, Jock Haston and Ted Grant, we left the Militant Group to form the Workers International League in 1937. There was at this time a group of engineering workers in Edmonton who were sympathetic to Trotskyism, and who eventually joined the movement. Betty was busily involved with them in running study circles on Marxism.
Betty maintained her contacts with the French Trotskyists, particularly with Raymond Molinier and Pierre Frank of the Parti Communiste Internationaliste. Molinier and Frank, sought by the French police for anti-imperialist activity, had fled to Belgium. When the Nazis invaded Belgium, they escaped to England. Having lived illegally in Belgium, they entered Britain with no proper papers, and they had to live clandestinely in England with no identity cards or ration books, and with no means of earning a living. They got very little assistance from the Trotskyist groups in Britain — either from the ‘official’ Trotskyists of the Revolutionary Socialist League or the WIL — because of factional differences. Betty was one of the few people to help them. It was, I think, on her advice that the French comrades instructed me to return to England to assist Frank and Molinier in their illegal existence.
Whilst in Belgium, Molinier and Frank, together with Rodolphe Prager and Georges Vereeken, had been publishing Correspondence Internationaliste as the organ of ‘The Delegation Abroad of the International Communists for the Building of the Fourth International’. With Betty’s invaluable assistance, and also that of Nora Saxe, a Belgian comrade, we restarted the publication of Correspondence Internationaliste. We managed to publish two or three issues (this time in English) before our little group was broken up when Frank was discovered and arrested in my flat, and was subsequently interned for the duration of the war, and Molinier made his timely escape to South America. Again Betty and her husband (who was not at all political) were invaluable with their practical and financial help, including bailing me out when I was prosecuted for harbouring Frank. For some obscure factional reasons, which I failed then to understand (and still do not understand), the WIL expelled Betty for associating with our ‘anti-Fourth International group’. This was rich, because the WIL had itself refused to join the unified British section of the Fourth International.
Later in 1940 Willie Hamilton joined the Royal Air Force. With Frank in prison, Molinier in Bolivia, and I now in the army, the Correspondence Internationaliste group was broken up, and Betty moved with her two children Jack and Lorna to the Midlands, and started work in an engineering factory. There she helped to organise the women workers into the union. By force of her personality, she overcame the initial coolness and suspicion of the overwhelmingly conservative, craft-conscious and male chauvinist skilled engineers, who looked askance at this woman, a foreigner at that, who dared to presume to tell them how to organise a union. What also impressed them was her competence as an engineer. On her first day she was put on a lathe, and the men watched her covertly, anticipating that she would make some blunder. She astounded them by immediately employing an old trick of the trade used by experienced turners of chalking the driving belt (in those days lathes did not have integral electric motors, but were driven by belts from an overhead shaft). They soon found to their astonishment that this ‘foreign bint’ was as good a turner as the best of them.
When my wife-to-be Olive joined the WIL and was on her own in Derby whilst I was abroad, Betty, who by then must have rejoined that organisation, kept in regular contact with her, and a deep friendship developed between them.
Betty participated in the unification of the RSL and the WIL in 1944 to form the Revolutionary Communist Party; and when differences arose in that party over the attitude to take towards the Labour Party, Betty supported the minority that was in favour of entering the Labour Party. She was on the Executive, and was for some years the Treasurer, of Gerry Healy’s organisation, the ‘Club’, that operated in the Labour Party, and which later became the Socialist Labour League.
When the split of 1953 in the world Trotskyist movement resulted in the formation of two rival international groupings, Betty sided with the Healy-Cannon faction against Pablo, Frank and Mandel. When the conference of the International Committee of the Fourth International was held in Leeds in 1958, Betty, together with Mary Archer and Olive, organised the administrative and catering arrangements (an example of the sexism still prevalent in the movement was that it seemed to be taken for granted that these backroom tasks were for the women comrades to do, whilst the men dealt with the serious business of policy!). Later, when Healy split from Pierre Lambert, Betty sided with the latter, although by the mid-1980s she had distanced herself from his current.
As a Trotskyist, Betty was a committed internationalist and supporter of the struggle of the colonial peoples for national independence, and she was for many years actively involved in the Congress of Peoples Against Imperialism, working closely with such people as Fenner Brockway. But she always maintained a critical attitude to political opportunism and careerism, and insisted that the working class in the colonial countries must maintain their political independence from the middle-class and bourgeois leaderships of the nationalist movements. She would have watched the present developments in South Africa with critical interest.
Although this account of Betty’s life has highlighted the practical side of her activities, it must not be thought that Betty neglected the theoretical and intellectual aspects of her politics. She was a widely-read and cultured woman in the fullest sense. She had a great interest in dancing, and knew Isadora Duncan and her sister. She founded the Isadora Duncan School of Dancing in London.
Willie Hamilton died some years ago. Although a typical middle-class Englishman and not sharing Betty’s political commitment, he was always tolerant of the disruptions which Betty’s activities inevitably brought to their lives, and was unfailingly courteous and kind to the many people to whom Betty offered hospitality.
After I broke from the Trotskyist movement in 1960, I lost contact with Betty for over 20 years. I saw her once about four years ago. She was by then in her late 80s, and very frail. I had the impression that by then she was not in contact with any organised group in Britain, but she was still in touch with some French comrades, and was still full of confidence in the overall correctness of Trotskyism. She was rather critical of ex-Trotskyists such as myself and of the people grouped around Revolutionary History, whom she felt were concentrating on the past as an alternative to fighting in the present. ‘As for me’, she said, ‘I am still fighting.’
We mourn a remarkable person, and offer our sympathies to her children and family.
Updated by ETOL: 21.9.2011