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Memorial Event 31 January 2010 at TUC Congress House

Speakers:
Eric Hobsbawm
Alan Green
David Marquand
Anne Sassoon
Rodney Bickerstaff
Carmel Elwell
Ernest Wistrich
Sally Davison
Terry Monaghan???
Peter Brookes
Phil McManus

Carmel Elwell

posted Mar 27, 2010, 5:03 AM by Dick Pountain   [ updated Mar 27, 2010, 5:05 AM ]

It has occurred to me before now that Nina had a lot in common with George Eliot – a writer we sometimes discussed and I know she admired. So preparing for today, I looked back at the last page of  Middlemarch and found some apt comments in the summary of Dorothea’s life. She is described as having  “ a noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state” and “ the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive.” These comments seem to me very fitting when thinking about Nina.

George Eliot and Nina had a lot in common including intellectual energy;  they were both strong minded, unconventional, interested in all manner of people, and, as was increasingly true of Nina, they were both writers of very long books. But of course they were very different, too. Nina was much prettier and had a much better sense of humour than George Eliot is known for. Nina’s  good humour, her sense of fun and her generosity as has been mentioned by others – are elements of her character that I would like to stress.

I first met Nina in 1984 when we were both attending a teacher-training course in Roehampton. I was living in Finsbury Park, and Nina in Highbury so we would make the long trek back together on Friday evenings. I was a naïve and enthusiastic new teacher and Nina, a reluctant participant in this compulsory training, would  give me the benefit of her experience.  Our friendship developed quickly and Nina was soon showing her generosity in all manner of ways. She gave up her time to help us shift furniture when we moved house; she came to give my Access students a practice lecture; she gave me wise and down to earth advice on office politics, union conflicts or history teaching. How do you teach the general strike to students who have never even heard of it?

Where I particularly appreciated the combination of these elements of her generosity and good humour was in her relations with us as a whole family. When our babies were born she and Phil tolerated our obsessions and saw us through from toddler tantrums to teenager disengagements – always interested and patient – even offering to babysit!  To have Nina and Phil cycle over to join us and Harriet and Ali and their sons  became a regular part of our Christmas mornings.  They tolerated the absurd puppet shows from the kids when they were young, and later became real friends and advisers as the boys became young men. I’m sure other people here today with children recognise the great contribution Nina and Phil made to our families’  lives. We’ll miss Nina so much in that respect.

But Nina did have one blind spot. She couldn’t stop herself recommending cultural events, especially Shakespeare performances, that she was SURE my teenagers would enjoy. I couldn’t quite convey to her that this would NOT be how my sons would choose to spend their weekend evenings.

I have to admit that I was a tiny bit scared of Nina and I did want to earn her approval so when , towards the end of last summer, she strongly recommended that I should go to see the Trevor Griffiths play, ‘A New World’ (about Tom Paine) at the Globe, I was hesitant in voicing my reluctance, but I did tell her that I wasn’t awfully keen . I’d heard it was very long, the reviews were mixed , it would be pretty uncomfortable at the Globe.  Her riposte was a scolding: “Sometimes sacrifices have to be made!” So Jonathan and I went to the last night of the season and shivered in the draught and did rather enjoy it, but the very next morning  - a Saturday - at 9.30 Nina rang, partly I think to check that we hadn’t chickened out, and partly to discuss the finer points of the play with me.  

There is so much more I could say, but it will become very personal and difficult to express. So I’ll finish by stating the obvious: we’ve lost a really very wonderful friend, and my family has lost a great support,  which is the cause of great sadness. But Nina taught me to be more optimistic than perhaps comes naturally to me, so I do believe that her ‘diffusive influence’, her inspiration,  will stay with us.


Anne Sassoon

posted Mar 5, 2010, 2:30 PM by Dick Pountain   [ updated Mar 27, 2010, 5:03 AM ]

The first thing I want to say is how pissed off I am to be here!  Nina could be maddening.  How dare she leave us so soon!  She was one of my dearest friends, and I I miss her terribly. These red roses are from 2 women who are far away but who wanted to be present: Donald’s and my daughter Tanya, and 88 year old Betty De Losada in San Francisco. Even those of us who have no faith would still like to imagine Nina somewhere.  In fact she is to be found in our memories.  These are so individual and so personal.  What I’d like to share with you today are a few of mine.

My first sighting of Nina was in the late 60’s across a meeting at the LSE as she stood up defying Trots like me to defend Stalin’s Third Period!  More recently she, in Swansea, and I, in Lambeth, have walked the walk as Labour Party members to shove leaflets through doors.

Nina was profoundly ambivalent about her American origins – not surprising given the effect McCarthyism had on her family.  But I think her wonderful throwing conventions to the wind owed a great deal to her unconventional American background, including not little to her mother Ellie who had been a labour organiser in the militant longshoreman’s union in the San Francisco area during World War II and who continued to agitate in one way or other for the rest of her life.

As Phil reminded me when he asked me to help to start this off,  Nina was a woman!  How many of you know that her parfumerie of choice was Floris in St. James or that she would bring her parents’ friends from the States to the Ritz for tea or that she always got those beautiful black curls of hers cut at Vidal Sassoon?

One of the funniest memories I have of Nina was the time we went to Glyndebourne together.  She arrived at Victoria in her cycling shorts, reflecting strips across her front and back, carrying her panniers.  We ascended the train then the bus along with other opera goers in, how shall I say, more usual attire.  Arriving at our destination, she dipped into the ladies, and out came Nina transformed in flowing skirt, bosomy top, and glam shawl, to share bubbly and a picnic with me.  The return journey reversed the process!

Finally, one of the wonderful things about our friendship was getting to know so many of her friends, one in particular, her partner of 25 years, Phil McManus.  Phil was Nina’s foundation for all of this time, rock solid, plain-speaking, with an easy laugh  – and loving – not only to Nina but to all of us.

A salute to you Phil – and Nina, alongside Paul Robson, our hearts sing to you!

Anne Showstack Sassoon, Saturday 30 January 2010

 

Peter Brooke

posted Feb 21, 2010, 6:40 AM by Dick Pountain   [ updated Feb 21, 2010, 6:41 AM ]

Since Nina Fishman died I have been revisiting some of the material she wrote in the early nineteen-seventies - under the name, Nina Stead - for The Communist, theoretical journal of the British and Irish Communist Organisation in Britain. Towards the end of 1972, after the miners' strike in which she had played an active role as a researcher working for the NUM, she was writing a month by month analysis of the politics of the day which led to a general theoretical statement published under the evocative name, The British Road to Socialism. This provoked a number of lively replies resulting in the long The British Road to Socialism - A Reply to Criticisms, and, eventually, in the B&ICO policy statement Workers Control in Britain, published in January 1974 and also mainly drafted by Nina.

I was astonished by these articles at the time and they are still astonishing. To the original astonishment at the force of the argument is now added astonishment at the gulf that has opened between what was politically possible then and what is politically possible now. I knew this intellectually of course, having lived through the process, but that process was gradual. Reading Nina's articles now obliges us to face up to it in a very abrupt manner. 

After 1945, successive British governments - Labour and Conservative - had made it their business to secure full employment - it was generally believed that to allow unemployment to rise above the level of 300,000 would be politically ruinous. As a result, without the fear of unemployment and with a strong possibility that government would intervene to save failing industries, the British working class through the trade unions found itself in a strong bargaining position. Governments had recognized from the start that this policy would require some form of regulation of trade union activities as well as a general policy regarding incomes, but these had proved impossible to secure. By the 1960s the situation was becoming radically unviable. Under these circumstances the instinct of the anticapitalist left was to press harder, to continue making economically unviable demands in the hope that the system would collapse. The collapse of capitalism would then lead inevitably to the establishment of socialism. 

That is of course putting it very crudely but with many variations that scenario was widespread among those who regarded themselves as Marxists or Communists, and it complemented the policy of the more 'right wing' section of the trade union movement which was not interested in political power but which wanted to concentrate on purely economic demands.  

For Nina such a strategy was grossly irresponsible and doomed to failure. Her attention was fixed on the single question of the advance of the working class to the position of ruling class. Such a perspective required a wide historical reflection on the process by which radical change had occurred historically in British society, most notably of course the long process of transition from aristocratic power to bourgeois power. Her central argument was that if the working class was to govern it had to develop the ability to govern, that is to be able to devise solutions to social problems as they arose. The working class would not merely fill the role of a passive cannon fodder to be used by the left leadership to crack capitalism in the hopes that once capitalism had collapsed the left leadership would then somehow know what to do. She envisaged the advance towards socialism as a gradual process which was already well advanced and which consisted in successively finding non-capitalist solutions to social and economic problems. She quoted many historical precedents to show that if such solutions were found, if they could be shown to be practical and if they commanded widespread, determined support within the working class, the bourgeoisie could be expected to give way, however reluctantly. 

By 1972 the state of the economy and the power of the unions had obliged the government - a Conservative government at that - to offer a deal. The Prime Minister Edward Heath had invited the TUC to join the government and the CBI in a process of centrally determining the general direction of the economy. This was not just a one-off offer - it was proposed as a continual process which amounted to a permanent shift of the centre of power and responsibility in the direction of the working class. Nina in the pages of this obscure Communist journal was one of the very few people on the left arguing that the offer should be taken up. While the left in general argued that this was class collaboration and would sully the purity of their socialist conscience, Nina argued that it was precisely by exercising responsibilities of this sort that the working class could learn to govern and thus develop the skills necessary to becoming a ruling class. 

I had come into contact with the British and Irish Communist Organisation in the same year, 1972, mainly through the material that had been published on Ireland. The B&ICO had produced the first credible account I had read of why the strange place I lived in, Northern Ireland, had come into existence as a distinct political entity, and why there should be such a contradiction of interests among the peoples living there. And for the first time I had the notion that Marxism - and a Marxism that presented itself as very conservative and dogmatic at that - could be a powerful tool for understanding historical and political development.  

It was however Nina's articles on British politics that finally persuaded me to join. I don't know why she herself had been attracted to the B&ICO. The B&ICO had a very distinctly Irish character but I don't think Nina was ever particularly interested in Irish politics, though she would certainly have felt that the moment when the British working class was on the verge of such major advances was hardly the moment to be wasting one's time trying to force the Ulster Protestants into a united Ireland. Perhaps she saw in the B&ICO a combination of two elements that normally might have seemed rather incompatible - on the one hand, loyalty to the mainstream Communist tradition she had inherited from her parents, an uncompromising opposition to the 'market socialism' that had become fashionable in the 1960s, and a commitment to the long term aim of Communism understood as a complete abrogation of the laws of capitalism; on the other hand a quite astonishing freedom of expression. There was no politburo laying down a party line. All members - even an infant still wet behind the ears as I was - could contribute on an equal basis to the debates. The only qualifications necessary were an ability to withstand a great deal of flack and a strong pair of lungs - both of which Nina possessed in abundance. 

The moment when I joined was more or less the climax of the battle over Nina's articles and I had never experienced anything like it. I've lived for over ten years in France and in this context it is a French word - houleuse - which comes to mind. The English equivalent would be 'stormy' but houleuse seems to capture the feel of it better. The end result, as I have already mentioned, was the Workers Control policy statement, published in January 1974. The British Road to Socialism had been mainly concerned with the national economy but the policy statement was primarily concerned with decisions to be made in the individual workplace. It was not a proposal to eliminate the existing bourgeois management. The knowledge and experience developed by the bourgeoisie would be necessary so long as they were not possessed by the working class. But the working class, whose lives were so entwined with the wellbeing of the enterprise, was, she argued, better placed to oversee the actions of management than the shareholders, only interested in the return on money invested which could be shifted about at will. If nothing else such oversight would have prevented the emergence of the autonomous and irresponsible managerial caste whose rule we are all suffering from at the present time. 

Nina's arguments complemented very well the findings of the Committee of Inquiry on Industrial Democracy chaired by Lord Bullock, published in January 1977. The B&ICO was, as I remember it and I'm open to correction on the matter, the only organised political group that gave it our wholehearted support. Even the Institute for Workers Control, which one might have thought had been created for this particular moment in history, could only complain that it wasn't radical enough for them. Never was the futility of the red revolutionary left more spectacularly put on display. 

We did what we could and Nina was part of it. Yet given her known skills and energy it seemed to me at the time that she was less active than I might have expected. I was not a member as she was of London branch of the B&ICO and again I'm open to correction on this. But if I am right the explanation may be found in the argument of these early writings. 

Her main argument was that major reform in Britain would only be possible if the working class - the real working class, not some supposed vanguard party of the working class - wanted it and would be willing if necessary to enforce it with extra-parliamentary action. She had said that the bourgeoisie would give way without any need for a storming of the Winter Palace, but they still needed to be pressed.  They weren't going to give way without any pressure whatsoever. The job of Communists, who claimed to be the most politically conscious section of the working class, was to persuade the class that such changes were both necessary in their own interests and - and this was crucial - feasible. But that work had not been done. It was possible that the mere passing of legislation based on Bullock - enabling representatives chosen by the workforce an equal say on the management boards with representatives chosen by the shareholders - would create the conditions for some positive development but the absence of any real pressure coming from the working class itself meant that the prospects were slim. She already knew in her bones that it wasn't going to work. 

The failure of the working class to take responsibility for their own affairs at that moment when it would have been so possible meant that inevitably, if the economic problems were to be resolved as they had to be, the bourgeoisie would have to do it. They would find their own solution in their own interests and that meant essentially abandoning the aim of full employment - giving the principle of competition its head and allowing unemployment levels to soar. And that in turn has led to the apparent destruction of the working class as a political power and the shocking gulf we can see between what was possible then and what seems to be possible now.

                                                                                          

Alan Green

posted Feb 11, 2010, 4:22 AM by Dick Pountain

For me, like many others, I think it has only just begun to sink in just how Nina was woven into the texture of my life. I think that the warmth and deep humanity of her spirit had a particular aspect, which expressed itself in very vigorous and generous engagement with other people. She possessed an organizing and connecting impulse which meant that she infused herself into our lives and the connections between our lives; many of which,of course, she had created.
I'll come back to this, but I think it would not be right to leave Nina in a sort of warm, cosy haze. She was often not a comfortable person for those around her. Her originality and vitality meant that she was often challenging and disturbing; literally so when she wanted to get you out doing something! Nina was a true radical. I don't mean the adoption of a vague political position, but a total approach to life, to history, to the world of ideas. She was a radical in the true sense: going to the root of things and arriving at often surprising and provocative positions. She was also not satisfied with the world of ideas; her radicalism was deeply pragmatic, looking for applications of her ideas and then setting out to apply them; and to organize others into helping her.
I want to give two examples. Both had a major influence on me, but much more importantly they had a deep significance in UK politics at the time. They are both from the 1970s.
Like many in the mid-'70s I was confused and in something of a political limbo. After the extremism and craziness of the late '60s I had been given a crash course in real life by becoming involved in the Trade union movement, but could find no political framework to make sense of the clearly momentous political events taking place at the time. I had included here some comments about the sort of political ideas that were available then...but on an occasion like this I don't want to be too negative! I can't remember how I stumbled on a cheaply-produced booklet issued by the British & Irish Communist Organisation called ' The case for industrial democracy' - a booklet written by Nina it turned out. It was as if someone had turned on the light! Here was writing from a left perspective, using concepts of class, of power, of social and political development, but expressed clearly and eloquently. Above all it showed a firm grip on the practical possibilities in the current world, gave them a pithy theoretical context AND made concrete proposals for their realisation. Here's an odd thing. I think Nina's major contribution to the politics of her time was to strengthen and develop the tradition of radical reformism: but these writings were truly revolutionary.
My second example finds a good few of us in despair in those same 1970's: in despair at the deeply reactionary and chauvinist position of the UK left on Europe and membership of the then-European Community. Nina's response was a classic piece of ' Don't weep, organize!'. She organised a group of us into the 'Campaign for a Socialist Europe' to engage in the battle of ideas over this key issue. I believe that Nina's organizing skills and her energy - which she went on to pour into other organizations focused on Europe - made a real contribution to the long, slow shift in the position of the left that took place in the 80s. Radical pragmatism again.
I'll end where I began.
Nina's promotion of friendships and working relationships was legendary. There are very many people who would not have worked together, campaigned together, discussed and argued together, eaten and drunk together, gone to the opera together, if it had not been for Nina. I think that it is in the relationships between us all that we find Nina's memorial. They will last as long as we do and always remind us of Nina; which will at the same time make her death easier to bear and much, much harder.

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