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Ian Birchall

Pete Glatter (1949–2008)


From Revolutionary History, Vol. 10 No. 1, 2009, pp. 151–55.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan for Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

PETE Glatter, who died in March 2008, was a revolutionary activist and writer for some 40 years. Pete was the child of Jewish refugees from Vienna. According to a story he liked to tell, his first act of rebellion came at the time of his Bar Mitzvah. Pete was preparing enthusiastically, and learning a Hebrew song. Then one day he was visiting the rabbi, and the latter asked him to remind his father to send the money. Pete was so shocked that payment was involved that he refused to proceed with the Bar Mitzvah.

Over the next few years, he broke sharply with his childhood religion and, even more importantly, with Zionism. But he retained an implacable hatred of all forms of racism.

In 1968, he joined the International Socialists (IS: forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party). He was somewhat hesitant, and another comrade filled in the membership form on his behalf. It was nonetheless a decision that was to shape his remaining 40 years. As an activist in Kingston he helped to recruit Harry Wicks to IS.

Pete had become a student and was involved in the struggles of the time. At an occupation at Kingston Polytechnic, students were presented with the choice of a motion to occupy, and one emanating from Jack Straw (then president of NUS) proposing that they should write to their MPs. With the tactical common sense he was often to show later, Pete urged them to vote for both resolutions.

Pete was critical of the IS student strategy, believing that we should concentrate on students in the newly-created Polytechnics and in FE colleges, who suffered from the worst conditions. His first article in International Socialism (no. 47, 1971), Second Class Students, dealt with this question. Beyond the tactical question, he was undoubtedly right when he wrote of the continuing drive to ‘subordinate directly more and more of the student’s life to purely capitalist ends’.

The early 1970s were the time of the biggest wave of working-class militancy in Britain since 1926, the years of the Saltley picket and the Pentonville Five. Pete abandoned his studies to put himself at the heart of the struggle, and for many years worked as a London busman.

He enthusiastically supported the 1972 miners’ strike, but remained totally irreverent towards the bureaucracy of the labour movement. During the strike he and another young worker, Vic Richards, wrote a letter to Socialist Worker that said: ‘Miners should use the coming lobby of parliament to make the left MPs fight. Stand your MP on the line in front of a scab lorry — and see what happens.’

The IS perspective at this time was the building of rank-and-file groups, and Pete was involved in the formation of a London bus workers’ bulletin called The Platform. According to figures from the IS print-shop, three issues were produced in 1973, with a print order of 3,000, of which 50 per cent were paid for. In the industrial report to the 1974 IS conference, the section on the bus industry — undoubtedly written with Pete’s involvement — realistically pointed to the difficulties of building a bus workers’ fraction with a range of different employers and the problem of getting workers together at the same time since they were always ‘on the road’. Nonetheless, the hope was for ‘the building of a national busmen’s organisation which is large enough to have influence in every region’.

But as well as his activities as a trade unionist and an IS member, Pete found time for historical work. His first major article was about the 1930s: London Busmen: Rise and Fall of a Rank & File Movement (International Socialism, no. 74, 1975). He had dug out original documents, including copies of the rank-and-file paper The Busman’s Punch, but also brought to the study his own experience of involvement in a similar project. He showed the strengths and weaknesses of the Communist Party, told the story of the Coronation Strike in 1937 and recalled a bus workers’ song to the tune of Clementine that asked: ‘What’s the use of having a pension / Unless you are still alive?’

In March 1974, Pete was one of over 500 delegates to the National Rank and File Conference. He spoke, calling for more specific organisation around rank-and-file papers rather than a general newsletter for the movement.

Pete was a talented linguist and also involved himself in IS’s international work. In July 1975, I travelled (as interpreter) with Pete, another bus worker called Les Kay and a young civil servant to Brussels to meet a group of rank-and-file bus workers there. In those hopeful days the possibility of an international rank-and-file movement seemed to be something we could aspire to.

Pete and Les shared the driving and there was much criticism of each other’s road skills. But they also regaled us with stories of their confrontations with management and with union bureaucrats. In fact this was just after Denis Healy had introduced wage controls which would mark a sharp turn in the pattern of class struggle, but these young workers were still full of the self-confidence bred of the preceding years of militancy. That sense of working-class strength would stay with Pete for the rest of his life.

When we re-entered Britain, we were held up while customs officials spent an inordinate amount of time dealing with the vehicle in front, occupied by a black family. Pete and his mates jumped out of the car and accused the customs men of racism.

Later that summer Pete was in Portugal at the high point of the revolution. He also took a close interest in Italy, and especially in Avanguardia Operaia, with whom IS had close links at the time. He recognised the value of AO’s work in building CUBs (Unitary Base Committees — autonomous rank-and-file committees), but was critical of the political weaknesses that would lead to its decline after 1976.

For most of the 1970s, he worked as a bus driver, then became an ambulance driver. With the advent of Thatcher and the downturn in industrial struggle, the rank-and-file groups came to an end. But Pete remained committed to revolutionary politics and to building the SWP, believing it would have a vital role when a new wave of struggle arose. He said to me quite recently that he had never been disappointed in the SWP because he had never expected more than what it gave him. What it had given him was a rigorous but flexible Marxist view of the world and a permanent commitment to activism.

Pete had a naturally friendly and generous personality. But he also believed in honesty and plain-speaking. I recall in the 1980s speaking at a meeting of Brixton SWP, where Pete was a leading member. Smugly, I felt I had spoken rather well, but at the end Pete took me on one side and said ‘That was good — but not good enough!’, and proceeded to tell me what I had failed to do.

In the 1980s Pete opted for an academic career. He took a first-class degree in Russian and became a research student at the University of Wolverhampton. Through this he became both a close friend and an intellectual collaborator with Mike Haynes.

Unfortunately, Pete did not manage to get a permanent academic job. Doubtless his intransigent Marxism and his deviation from orthodoxy did not help his career prospects. He worked at both the British Library and Amnesty International.

He was now writing more extensively, both for the SWP press and for academic journals. There is an excellent account of his work in Mike Haynes’ article on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pete_Glatter), and an archive of his writings at http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/glatter/. Pete had always been particularly enthusiastic about the 1905 revolution, and had considered writing a book for the centenary. When that fell through, he was very pleased to be put in touch with Revolutionary History, and he agreed to edit a special issue devoted to 1905 (Volume 9, no 1, 2005). Here he translated a substantial amount of material previously unknown in English and enriched our understanding of these crucial events. He attended the Revolutionary History editorial board regularly, and was pleased to make new friends and to work with a group of people from varying political standpoints but united in their concern with the history of the socialist movement. He was particularly pleased at working with Brian Pearce, who he felt had given him a ‘master class’ in translation skills.

Pete published several articles on 1905, dealing with various aspects — the impact of the Russian-Japanese war, the role of women workers, etc. But his central concern was a theme that fascinated him and which he wished to pursue further, what he called ‘change through struggle’ (the subtitle of the Revolutionary History volume), the way in which working people set out to change the world and transformed themselves in the process.

Although now in his late fifties, Pete seemed to be at the height of his powers, and his intellectual curiosity was undimmed. It seemed reasonable to think his best work was still ahead of him. For the last 14 years of his life, his close friendship with the Chilean Monica Riveros became an intellectual partnership that was crucial to his development of new ideas.

His studies of Russia led him to new fields of enquiry, for example the criticism of ‘élite theory’. During the Historical Materialism conference in late 2006, he was very active in making contacts with visitors from Russia and with scholars of Russia from the USA. He was also making plans with Neil Faulkner to respond to right-wing revisionist accounts of the First World War and the Russian Revolution with ‘a grand narrative account of the global crisis of 1914–1921’.

He took a keen interest in my biography of Tony Cliff (Cliff had been an important influence on him). When I became demoralised at my lack of progress, he was very encouraging, and for a time it was agreed he would phone me once a month to check that I was up to schedule and not slacking.

Recently he had had health problems, but his friends were shocked to learn that he was suffering from a rare form of sporadic CJD which affects about one person in 20 million. I spoke to him on the phone late in 2007 when he was already in hospital, and he was anxious for news of the SWP. But the illness produced massive loss of memory. When I visited him a few weeks before his death, he thought I had been sent from Cottons Gardens (the IS headquarters in the early 1970s). By now he was living in a world of his own fantasies. But when I mentioned the names Lenin and Cliff there was a strong reaction — his revolutionary commitment was clearly at the very core of his being.

His funeral at Golders Green Crematorium was attended by close to a hundred friends and comrades who had shared his life and struggles and various times. One of the most moving moments was the reading of a poem by his daughter Nadine. As often happens, parent-child relations had not run smooth. But her account of the ups and downs was marked by a combination of warmth and honesty which showed just how much she had inherited from her father.

As we celebrate the fortieth anniversary of 1968, it is fashionable for supercilious media commentators to disparage the events of that year. If any investigative reporter had ventured out of the closed, self-congratulatory circle in which so many journalists dwell in order to attend Pete’s funeral, they could have met literally dozens of Pete’s friends who, in their varying commitments and activities, have, like Pete, stayed true to what they learned in that year of workers’ power.

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Last updated: 21 May 2021