Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 4


Fred Jackson (1916–2004)

FRED Jackson was born at Dysart, near Kirkcaldy, Scotland, on 2 July 1916, the son of Fred Jackson, a skilled pottery worker, originally from Stoke-on-Trent, and his wife Mary, née Catterson. The family – he had two brothers and a sister – later lived in Hurlford, near Kilmarnock in Ayrshire and Alloa in Clackmannanshire. His father was active in the Independent Labour Party, and Fred received a socialist upbringing during the tumultuous decade of working-class struggle and eventual crushing defeat which followed the First World War. By the time of the General Strike in 1926, he was an avid observer of events and an ardent reader of socialist literature. But it was his father’s victimisation – and subsequent two years’ unemployment which impoverished the family – when he was dismissed for refusing to stand down as an ILP candidate in the Ayrshire County Council election in 1929, which made him a lifelong antagonist of the capitalist system and committed champion of its victims.

In 1927, he won a scholarship to Kilmarnock Academy. Like so many gifted working-class youngsters of that era, family circumstances ensured that he left school at the age of 15, and he worked for a time in engineering before becoming an apprentice pharmacist. In 1932, when he was 16, he joined the ILP. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the ILP’s disaffiliation from the Labour Party, and was energetic in building the Guild of Youth in Alloa. The soapbox taught him the now almost extinct art of public speaking and an abiding distaste of politicians who read their speeches. His socialism remained essentially ethical: it was based on his working-class experience and the moral teachings of the ILP. It was only when he came into contact with members of the Communist Party that he began to expand his horizons and study Marx and Lenin. Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933 combined with the keen interest he took in the Spanish Civil War confirmed for him the validity of the ILP’s critique of Stalinism. But he began to question its ability to build the revolutionary party which he was increasingly convinced was indispensable to the emancipation of the working class.

He was less than impressed by the CP’s claim to that mantle. He always spoke disparagingly of its policies: ‘a zig, a zag and another zig’. He witnessed with dismay the Third Period of the Comintern and the ‘incredible insanity of this ultra-left sectarianism’. The ensuing 180-degree turn to the Popular Front deeply offended his always sharp class consciousness:

All talk of socialism was dropped from the Communist Party programmes, there was nothing in their papers with which even liberals could disagree … These politics sounded very attractive to the politically ignorant, non-socialist, petit-bourgeoisie. When confronted with some irrefutable evidence of totalitarian tyranny, they would shrug it aside with the dishonest: ‘Well, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.’ (F.J. to Glenys, 29 December 1991)

Stalinism in Spain combined with doubts about the revolutionary capabilities of the POUM to cement his concerns. At discussion meetings of the ILP’s Scottish division in Glasgow: ‘I began to hear about Leon Trotsky and about some strange animals called Trotskyists who were centred mainly in London and a few pieces of whose literature I was able to see.’ (Ibid.) In November 1937, he found a job in a London pharmacy, and his activity in the metropolitan ILP further fanned his interest in Trotskyism. The following year he joined the Workers International League, whose members he had encountered and argued with at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park.

He had other preoccupations. From the time he was given a chemistry set on his tenth birthday he had dreamt of becoming a chemist, and he settled for pharmacy as the next best thing. But for the next decade he was consumed by politics and spent all his waking hours in political activity. Quitting his job in pursuit of the workers, he found employment in an engineering factory, and he became a shop steward in the Amalgamated Engineering Union. After the start of the Second World War, he had no hesitation in moving once more to Sheffield to build the WIL in the provinces.

The WIL fought to turn the war into a workers’ war against fascism and capitalism. It insisted that its members went through the experience with their class, joining the armed forces and agitating for workers’ control of the war within them. However, it believed that leading cadres should avoid the draft in order to direct the organisation’s own war effort. This prompted an over-zealous initiative by the Sheffield local. One of its members, the veteran communist Arthur Carford, had access in his work as a medical ancillary to the cards used by the medical boards which recorded the fitness – or lack of it – for military service of potential conscripts. Carford appropriated a number of these cards so that medical information exempting individuals could be forged and used to protect WIL members avoiding the call-up who were rounded up in police raids.

Four members of the organisation, including Carford and Jackson, were arrested and charged with conspiracy to steal and receive the cards and the more serious count of conspiracy to assist the enemy – which carried a sentence of 20 years in gaol. Jackson dispensed with legal representation and defended himself. In a speech of over an hour at Leeds Assizes in December 1940, he argued that conspiracy to assist the enemy was a political charge, and he elaborated the WIL’s politics and their political antagonism to fascism in Germany. The defendants were convicted only on the minor charges, although Jackson, described by the judge as the driving force of the escapade, was sentenced to two years in prison.

The WIL condemned what they regarded as a reckless adventure which endangered the group; in view of his powerful political defence, Jackson was only suspended from holding office in the organisation for 12 months. He used his time inside to extend his political knowledge and hone his powers of argument in disputation with fellow inmates. On his release, he resumed activity in the WIL, and he joined the Fleet Air Arm. He served most of a two-and-a-half year stint in Belfast where he worked with the group around Bob Armstrong, and developed a prodigious sale of Socialist Appeal. In 1943, he married Erna Kamil, a Jewish refugee from Vienna who had come to Britain with her sister just before the war and whose parents perished in the Holocaust. Their only child, Alan, was born the following year.

Jackson was an energetic activist in the Revolutionary Communist Party, established in 1944 by the fusion of the WIL with the Revolutionary Socialist League. The idealism and assurance of the inevitability of a socialist future which had configured his youth was reinforced by the events of wartime:

We were full of optimism in those days: the soldiers, sailors and airmen were becoming more and more disillusioned with life under capitalism and were prepared to listen to us; our international contacts were sending reports of unrest everywhere. In Britain, the radicalisation of the masses took the form of returning a Labour government with an overwhelming majority in 1945. (Ibid.)

But like so many other British Bolsheviks, his hopes of a revolutionary breakthrough collapsed among the problems of the new postwar world. Workers affirmed their loyalty to Labour, the economic crisis failed to arrive, Stalinism expanded and the CP reoccupied old ground. He recalled:

What we had not expected was that the British working class would consider its duty done and sit back and wait for Labour to hand us socialism on a plate. We warned that they would not – but the workers didn’t want to listen. They were exhausted from the traumas and hardship of the war. The Labour Party branches were dead, and our hopes of gaining new members by the tens of thousands did not materialise. Even our own RCP membership began to decline as comrades grew tired … sales of the paper declined, and in mid-1948 I too gave up the ghost. (Ibid.)

The stimulus which the exceptional conditions of wartime had given to British Trotskyism was exhausted, and so were many of its cadres. His retirement from political activity was final, although he remained a committed socialist and an assiduous student of socialist literature. He maintained links with his old comrades, and in the 1980s contributed an introduction to Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson’s War and the International. But the backbreaking and largely unfruitful attempts to resurrect the fortunes of Trotskyism in the years of the long boom were not for him, and he was out of sympathy with the groups which emerged from the mini-revival after 1968. For many years, he worked for a company making optical frames, and subsequently for two electrical engineering companies in West London. He enjoyed travel, making model engineering tools in his workshop and playing bridge. His last years were devoted to caring for his sick wife.

He was a man of determination and principle who cared deeply about people and devoted his life to their welfare. He continued to live by the values he was educated into in the working-class Scotland of the 1920s. And he retained his political beliefs forged in the 1930s until the end:

… there are one or two things which I would like to have done differently, but fundamentally I still think our ideas were right. As I have told you, I simply lost hope of ever convincing a majority of workers… After over 40 years, I can see no signs that I was wrong … a socialist revolution can only succeed if it has the support of an overwhelming majority of the working class and some of the middle class – and what could be more democratic than that? If there is bloodshed the responsibility for it lies on the shoulders of the tiny minority of the capitalist class who refuse to accept the democratic decision of people as a whole, the people who won’t ‘give up the sugar’ … (Ibid.)

Fred Jackson died on 3 March 2004. He is survived by his wife Erna and his son Alan.

John McIlroy

Updated by ETOL: 28.10.2011