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Geoff Andrews' obituary for journal "Socialist History"

Nina Fishman 1946-2009 

Nina Fishman, like many other British labour historians, maintained a range of different commitments throughout her life, though in her case there were many creative overlaps between her political projects and her work as a leading scholar of the British trade union movement. These included belonging to an obscure, if interesting, coterie of intellectuals assembled in the British and Irish Communist Organisation (BIKO), a long spell teaching trade unionists (where she met her husband Phil McManus); as Professor of Industrial and Labour History at the University of Westminster and, for the last two years of her life, as honorary research professor in history at Swansea University. She was also the catalyst for several political and electoral reform organisations of varying success such as Case (the Campaign For a Socialist Europe), Tactical Voting ’87, and Common Voice. Her death from cancer at the age of 63 therefore leaves a gap in many places; a testament to her remarkable energy and originality as a thinker and activist. 

Born in California, Nina came to the UK in the early 1960s after her father, a victim of McCarthyism, took up a university post here. Her background meant that she had already received an education in the world of communist culture before the 1968 events (at which point she defended Stalin’s third period). On the other side, notably in the creative International Socialists of that moment, were future friends and allies; among them Anne Showstack Sassoon, subsequently one of her closest friends. It was her support for trade union struggles in this period which had a lasting impact; notably the 1968 Barbican building workers strike and the 1972 miners strike. 

Her first degree in economics was disrupted by her political and trade union activism. Her second degree at Birkbeck College was in history, which became her lifelong passion. Her PhD, supervised by Eric Hobsbawm, was on the relationship between the communist party and the trade unions in the interwar period. This was developed into ‘The British Communist Party and the Trade Unions 1933-1945’, (Scolar Press 1995), and followed the culmination of many years research. As Eric Hobsbawm wrote in his review of the book in The Guardian, she must have interviewed more of the ‘unknown and half-known soldiers’ of the labour movement in this period than anyone else. From her patient research she was able to formulate a perceptive and lucid analysis of the very complex loyalties of British communist trade unionists.  

Her argument was highly original in demonstrating that despite the power and influence of the Comintern the particular ideological and political loyalties of British communists in the trade unionist movement need to be understood as a peculiarly British type of pragmatism; one which proved astonishingly effective in forging alliances and gaining respect and the ability to react to events on the ground. Thus she argued that there was no significant difference between the positions of the Labour and communist parties on industrial policy, despite prevailing Comintern policy. She developed her own conceptual language in order to define this complex politics. ‘Revolutionary pragmatism’ was used to explain the way in which communist leaders, like Arthur Horner, were able to immerse themselves in day to day to day industrial struggles, while maintaining the view that ‘Life Itself’ would lead to revolution. While the Comintern may have been demanding Leninist orthodoxy and discipline, Fishman’s research demonstrated that on the ground the party’s impetus was derived from a mixture of trade union loyalism and rank and filism. Her approach fitted very well with the ‘opening the books’ era from the early 1990s  when party archives became widely available and old orthodoxies were subject to greater scrutiny. 

This importance given to the political skills and acumen of communist party leaders operating within the difficult constraints of conflicting loyalties is apparent above all in her monumental two volume study of Arthur Horner  published posthumously in 2010. (Her determination to finish sustained the last months of her life). This much needed Horner biography will make a major contribution to the history of twentieth century labour history; as it is a story deeply rooted in the wider political culture of the British labour movement. Horner, a figure whose power and influence in the labour movement after 1926 was surpassed only by Ernest Bevin (with whom he shared some similarities), was able to survive as a dissident in the eyes of Moscow and the CPGB leadership. Condemned by the CPGB leadership, asked to recant by Moscow, he nevertheless remained a convinced communist and popular amongst the rank and file. If that was not enough, further personal pressures such as a period in prison which he devoted to thinking through a complex strategy (drawing some comparisons to Antonio Gramsci), deal with alcoholism and many family sacrifices, point to remarkable political leadership. The ability to balance his ‘revolutionary’ ideas, even though he knew revolution itself was increasingly unlikely in Britain, while being equally at home with social democratic compromise when dealing with the National Coal Board, was one of his greatest attributes. Nina uncovers for the first time the intricacies, tactical awareness and depths of political understanding which were central to Horner’s leadership. 

The last time I saw her was just over a year before she died. It was at a seminar and launch party for Aldo Agosti’s biography of the former Italian Communist Party leader Palmiro Togliatti, held at the Marx Memorial Library. The publication of the book itself owed much to Nina’s organisational skills, her sense for originality and typical tenacity in overcoming all obstacles. This included the twenty pound note she passed me to ensure that everybody enjoyed a glass of wine at the launch, in defiance of the library’s no alcohol policy. 

Geoff Andrews