Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 2


Charlie Van Gelderen (1913–2001)

LIFE-LONG revolutionary socialist Charlie van Gelderen died at home in Cambridge on 26 October at the age of 88 after a short illness.

Charlie was born in August 1913 in the small town of Wellington, 40 miles from Cape Town in South Africa. He became politically active as a young man, initially joining the South African Fabian Society. In 1931, at the age of 18, he became an enthusiastic supporter of Leon Trotsky, who was already in exile for opposing Stalinist tyranny in the USSR. Charlie and his twin brother Herman were instrumental in setting up the first Trotskyist organisation in South Africa, the International Marxist League. He was also involved in setting up the Commercial Workers Union, and for a time became its full-time secretary. He fought for the union to recruit both black and white workers, and lost his position when opponents of an integrated union split away.

In 1935, Charlie followed his comrade and future wife (and mother of his daughters Leonora and Tessa), Millie Matthews, to London. Charlie threw himself into political activity, becoming involved in the Islington Labour League of Youth, the youth wing of the Labour Party at the time. Charlie joined the Marxist Group, whose best-known member was C.L.R. James. The group had been active in the Independent Labour Party, but was discussing going into the Labour Party, despite James’ opposition. Charlie joined the Labour Party as a result.

In 1938, Charlie attended the founding conference of Trotsky’s Fourth International in Paris, representing the South African Trotskyists. He was the last surviving participant of that conference. The Fourth International was founded following the rise of Hitler in Germany, the defeat of the Spanish Republic and the Moscow Trials, and under the clouds of impending world war. Charlie was convinced of the need for the new International under these conditions, as an alternative to the betrayals of Stalinism, and remained so for the rest of his life. During the war, Charlie joined the British Army, and openly agitated for revolutionary ideas (including organising Marxist educational classes) among the troops. He was sent first to Iraq and then to Italy, arriving just after the fall of Mussolini. Whilst a British soldier, he helped to form the first Trotskyist organisation in Italy, together with Italian comrades and American Trotskyists stationed in the area. When Charlie returned to Britain, the Trotskyists had come together to form the Revolutionary Communist Party, and he rapidly became a prominent member. Socialist Workers Party leader Tony Cliff (who died last year) and his wife Chanie Rosenberg came to Britain at this time and lived with Charlie in the early days. While they parted company politically when Cliff developed the idea that the USSR was state capitalist, Charlie always respected Cliff’s ability and integrity.

Charlie was active as a Trotskyist until his final illness. Leaving the Socialist Labour League in the early 1960s, he became a founder member of the International Marxist Group, and then from 1987 a member of the International Socialist Group, the British Section of the Fourth International today. Charlie was active in the Labour Party from the early days, convinced that this was an important arena in which to fight for revolutionary ideas. He joined in September 1936 and resigned in March 2001 in response to the continuing rightward march of New Labour and the decline of the Labour left. He was an enthusiast for the formation of the Socialist Alliance, and he became an active member in Cambridge.

Charlie never lost touch with his South African roots. He remained not only a specialist in Southern African politics, but a tireless opponent of the apartheid system. Nor did he lose his deep hatred of the capitalist system, which was clear from his monthly column in Socialist Outlook. His other cause célèbre for many years had been the unity of the revolutionary movement. He often said that when we call on the workers of the world to unite we must look at ourselves at the same time. This is why he was so inspired by the Socialist Alliance; it was not just an alternative to New Labour, but the most important united initiative by the left for many years.

Charlie is sorely missed by his wife Christine, whom he married in 1989, his daughters (who are both revolutionary socialists) and the rest of his family and friends. He will also be missed by the many comrades in Britain and across the world who knew him and respected his life-long struggle for the socialist cause.

Alan Thornett

Editor: Alan is unfortunately mistaken in seeing Charlie as a participant in the founding conference of the Fourth International, which was held in Perigny. The British delegates were Willie Tait, C.L.R. James, Hilary Sumner-Boyd and Denzil Harber. Charlie was, in fact, an observer at the Youth Congress to be held in Paris at the same time.

Updated by ETOL: 17.10.2011