Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 3


Tom Kemp (1921–1993)

THE death of Tom Kemp last December is a great loss for Socialism. He was celebrated internationally as a Marxist economic historian, but his greatest contribution was to the history of the Fourth International.

Tom was belonged to that group of Communist Party intellectuals who became Trotskyists during the party crisis of 1956. Born into a workers’ family in Wandsworth, he gained scholarships which took him to a local grammar school and in 1939 to the London School of Economics. Whilst still at school, the fight against Fascism and the situation of unemployed workers in the area drew him into the Young Communist League and the Communist Party of Great Britain.

After one year at the LSE, he joined the Navy, serving as a rating on landing craft. He was one of the few survivors of the Dieppe raid, the insane adventure murderously launched by Churchill and Mountbatten in 1943. In 1946, resuming his studies at the LSE, then enjoying its quite undeserved reputation as a centre of Marxism, he rejoined the Communist Party. But Tom’s completely loyal adherence to the Communist Party was never unthinking. Whilst on leave in 1944, he had attended a meeting of the Revolutionary Communist Party in London, and had a long discussion with Jock Haston and others. The Stalin-Tito break also raised many questions for him, and he dropped out of Communist Party activity after 1950. By this time, he was teaching economic history at Hull, where he continued for over 30 years.

The year 1956, therefore, found him not completely unprepared. He soon embarked on a careful study of Trotsky’s writings and a reconsideration of the history of the Communist International. Making contact with the wide variety of Trotskyist groups on offer at the time, he carefully compared their literature and political activity. There was therefore nothing accidental about his decision in 1957 to join ‘the Group’ led by Gerry Healy. He was impressed by the way that when Healy came to visit him, there was no attempt to recruit him to a political ‘line’, but simply the loan of a couple of Trotsky’s books.

Tom’s work in ‘the Group’, and its successors, the Socialist Labour League and the Workers Revolutionary Party, combined theoretical, educational and journalistic work with every aspect of political activity. Somehow, he managed alongside all this to maintain a happy family life, to carry out his academic work effectively, and to produce a stream of books and articles, both on academic topics and for the movement. In particular, he played a central role in the theoretical work of the International Committee of the Fourth International, being responsible for several of its more carefully worked-out statements.

Several of his works have remained on university reading lists for many years, especially his Theories of Imperialism. His works on French economic history and on patterns of economic development also remain important pieces of scholarship. The extremely modest way that he spoke of this work distinguished him sharply from the usual run of academics. The university establishment, of course, saw to it that he never received a fraction of the recognition accorded to the typical flashy academic charlatan.

During the 1970s, Tom played a major part in the educational work of the WRP, always presenting his carefully-prepared material to audiences of workers with great patience and good humour. Always loyal to the political organisation, he would never budge an inch on principled questions, however exasperated this made those who disagreed with him — often the overwhelming majority of us! At the same time, he rarely departed from his usual calm and modest manner.

As Healy’s regime exhibited increasing signs of delirium tremens in the late 1970s, Tom’s misgivings about the WRP led him to drop out of activity in 1980, although so quietly that no political opponent of the organisation was ever aware of it. Only on Healy’s expulsion in the explosion of 1985 did Tom return to political work, playing a major part in the initial attempt to seek the roots of the degeneration of the International Committee.

To the last, Tom Kemp continued to fight for theoretical clarity and the development of the principles of the Communist movement. In the vital work of re-establishing that movement, his presence will be sorely missed. For myself, as a friend, the gap left by his death can never be filled.

Cyril Smith

Updated by ETOL: 21.9.2011