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


Walter Kendall (1929–2003)

WITH the passing of Walter Kendall after a long and unequal struggle against Parkinson’s Disease, the socialist movement lost one of its most original thinkers, and the labour movement one of the most vigorous and dedicated activists it had in the last half-century.

Walter was already involved in the Labour League of Youth in his twenties when Tony Cliff, but recently arrived in Britain, came round to recruit him to the newly-founded Socialist Review Group, quite without success. For whilst being a convinced and sincere Marxist, Walter never accepted that any of the current varieties of Bolshevism represented a legitimate development of Marx’s viewpoint. Repelled by what he saw as a manipulative attitude to the working class and its institutions, he was determined to investigate the historical roots of this tradition, and went to Ruskin College on a Labour Party scholarship in 1963, and then on to a BLitt degree at St Catherine’s College, Oxford. The result of his researches was the book for which he became famous, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain, 1900–21 published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in 1969, which used an incredible mass of material to argue that Marxism in this country was slowly developing to maturity when it was diverted by Russian intrigue, leaving us with the Communist Party of Great Britain and its successor sects, which have ever since failed to come to terms with the particular traditions, structure and functioning of our labour movement. Needless to relate, this won him few friends among either Trotskyists or Stalinists, who, even when his reputation had brought him to high office in the Society of Labour Historians, intrigued behind his back to nullify his influence. Only after the collapse of their party did they come round to admitting that his book was a classic. A further stint as a Senior Research Fellow at Nuffield College in 1970–73 led to the writing of The Russian Revolution and the Communist International, 1898–1935, which has not found a publisher, although the British Library has a copy of the manuscript. His last academic appointment was as Fellow of the Centre for Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex.

Most of those who shared Walter’s regard for the labour movement in this country have notoriously restricted national horizons, but there was nothing insular about him. A stint as Visiting Lecturer at Wayne State University in Detroit in 1967 made him several firm friends among the older generation of socialists in the United States, and the work that went into his book The Labour Movement in Europe (London 1975) brought him an amazing range of friends and acquaintances, from noted historians of the international labour movement like Bert Andreas to such international trade union leaders as Dan Gallin, and colourful and mysterious figures like Bruno Rizzi.

Kendall the historian was only part of the man, for his dedication and organisational skills were enriching the labour movement long before he embarked upon an academic career. His frequent interventions at USDAW’s national conferences along with Sam Bornstein kept alive the union’s radical traditions, he was a driving force in the Institute of Workers’ Control and on the London Co-op Political Committee, and he pioneered the Voice group of newspapers, being for many years editor along with Frank Allaun of Voice of the Unions, until that too succumbed to Stalinist infiltration and went the way of all their front operations. Yet his opposition to Stalinism did not prevent the authorities from disbarring him from entering the United States on several occasions.

Some are socialists by heart, and others by head. Since we live in a world of narrow specialisations, few of us can become the all-rounded human beings of the type we hope to see in our future world, of whom Walter Kendall can be regarded as an anticipation. Those of us who are proud to boast of his friendship knew him as a man of deep sincerity and courage, gentle and unassuming manners, and warm generosity. Our sympathies go out to his lifelong companion Pam, whose loss we share.

Al Richardson

Updated by ETOL: 28.10.2011