Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 2
Ray Gibbon (1929–2001)
RAY Gibbon, who died on 8 October 2001, was born in Acton, West London on 26 February 1929. Evacuated for a brief period at the beginning of the war to the village of Abbotsbury in Dorset, Ray spent most the war years in Birmingham with his sister, to whom he remained close. He attended Bishop Veseys’ Grammar School in Sutton Coldfield, no mean feat for a working-class boy at that time.
He left school in 1944, and after a brief period working at the magazine Everybody’s, he joined the British Merchant Marine, travelling to Africa and the Far East. Visiting a devastated Hamburg and meeting young German workers, some of whom had been in concentration camps themselves and who were now living in bombed-out cellars, he realised that Germans were not the demons of official propaganda, but people like himself.
At 17, he jumped ship in Canada and made his way to New York. He loved the vitality, strength and lack of deference that characterised the organised American working class of that time, and he turned his hand to many jobs in a variety of workplaces from bowling alleys and short-order cooking, to caring for some of the survivors of the Holocaust at Grosinger’s, one of the premier Jewish Hotels in the Catskill Mountains, where he earned the nickname of Rayele – Little Ray.
Ray was present at the notorious Peekskill Rally where workers, union members and speakers, including Paul Robeson, were ambushed by racists and reactionaries with the collusion of the local police. He saw the wide gap between the rich and the poor and the ever-present racism in American society, and he joined the American Communist Party. As the wartime alliance between America and the Soviet Union gave way to the Cold War, Ray was rounded up, tried, detained for a year in Danbury prison, and then deported as an undesirable alien. One of his fellow detainees on Ellis Island was C.L.R. James. At that time, they were in different political camps. Ray was an orthodox Communist, and James was a Trotskyist with growing differences with mainstream Trotskyism. James’ work on Herman Melville kindled Ray’s own interest in the author. Many years later, Ray would give a talk to the Socialist Party of Great Britain on Melville, Moby Dick and James’s book about them.
Back in England, Ray joined the British Communist Party. He was then called up for National Service and was advised to resign, which he reluctantly did. During his service he was stationed in North Africa and Cyprus. In Cyprus, he made contact with the Cypriot Communist Party, which forged relationships with the Cypriot Branch of the British Communist Party.
Released from the army, Ray went to work in engineering in West London, where he was active in the union, becoming a shop steward and then a convenor. Notting Hill was then the centre of violence against immigrants from the Caribbean, and when Kelsoe Cochrane was murdered, Ray went as a worker to express solidarity with the black community when they organised a demonstration.
Blacklisted for his union activities, Ray went to work for British European Airways as a chef in the workers’ canteen at Heathrow. During this time, he remonstrated strongly with the then Managing Director who requested special treatment for a visiting VIP, saying that everyone was entitled to and would get the best treatment possible from him.
Ray later worked for Progressive Tours, which specialised in trips to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. He still found it necessary to organise as a worker, and he helped to unionise the developing tourist industry. Working at Progressive Tours, he also came into contact with Maureen Scott and Mike Baker, who had joined the Committee to Defeat Revisionism for Communist Unity, a pro-Chinese group. Maureen kept him supplied with copies of its paper Vanguard. Ray visited the USSR and other Eastern European countries as a courier with Bill Turner, an ILPer. His experiences there and discussions with Bill and others sowed seeds of doubt in his mind about Stalinism, and he drifted out of the Communist Party.
Ray continued to work in the broad labour movement. Present at the very first Aldermaston March which went from Trafalgar Square to Aldermaston, Ray was active in the peace movement, taking part in the demonstrations of the Committee of 100 and in the struggle which later developed over the American involvement in the war in Vietnam. In the 1970s, Ray was involved in the squatting movement which arose out of the struggle against homelessness, after he, his wife and children had experienced housing difficulties themselves. Ray was one of the first two people to enter Centre Point when it was occupied, and later he was amused to see himself portrayed in the local South London Press as a respectable ‘employed father of two’ when helping to occupy a building in Brixton. The building, 366 Brixton Road, was subsequently bought by the local authority, and has been for many years the centre for organisations assisting the disabled.
I met Ray at meetings of the Movement for Workers Councils, a tiny group of Left Communists led by Joe Thomas who had broken from Stalinism under the influence of Hugo Oehler, and Mike Baker, who had moved from supporting Liu Shao Chi to Council Communism. When Joe had a lung removed, Ray looked after him and fought with local bureaucrats to get Joe into sheltered housing. Mike died shortly after Joe, and Ray spoke movingly at his funeral. Ray also took place in an informal discussion circle which included anarchists, dissident Labour Party members and the odd Socialist Workers Party member, which met at my flat.
When the Socialist Labour Party was formed, Ray joined it, seeing it as a potential breakthrough for the left. Recognising that the internal weaknesses of rigid thought, organisational tyranny and the cult of the individual doomed the organisation to being no more than yet another splinter group of socialists, Ray left. He explained his reasons at a meeting of the Greenwich and Woolwich Morning Star readers’ group. His last political contribution was a letter to the Weekly Worker in which he tried to make some sense of the votes scored by the British National Party in Oldham.
Ray was always aware of the injustice of class oppression. Strong in debate, he was always without malice or rancour. Widely read and deeply cultured, he loved music, be it Rogers and Hart, Puccini or Paul Robeson. He greatly enjoyed his garden and his cats, and his grandson Jack was the delight of his last two difficult years of struggle with the cancer which killed him. Throughout his treatment, Ray spoke vigorously in defence of the National Health Service. Appreciative always of the hard work and selfless care displayed by the hard-pressed staff, starved as they were of resources and riddled by managerial inefficiencies, he defended to the last what he regarded at the benchmark of a civilised society, the capacity to care for those in need.
It may sound a cliché, but they really don’t make them like that any more.
Editor: I would like to add my appreciation of Ray. I remember him as a good-humoured, warm and completely non-sectarian member of the Communist Party (there were such) who worked loyally with me in the South-East London Vietnam ad hoc Committee in 1967–68.
Updated by ETOL: 16.10.2011