Speech of Keith Bennett at meeting to honour Comrade Jack Shapiro at Saklatvala Hall, Southall on 11 August 2007 [full version]
Dearest Jack and Roger
Esteemed Comrades from the People's Republic of China and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea
Comrades and Friends
First, I want to express my deep thanks to the comrades of the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) for their initiative to organise this meeting and celebration of one of Britain's greatest and most respected communists.
Comrade Jack Shapiro is an outstanding Marxist-Leninist and a lifelong fighter for the working class and the oppressed, who has held fast to his principles through thick and thin, and through every twist and turn, and who still now works hard, is generous with his time, wisdom and resources, and who, without mincing his words, is always tolerant, encouraging, and, indeed, modest towards us younger comrades. No matter how difficult the times, and many of them have been very difficult, even bleak, he is a comrade whose complete confidence in humanity's brilliant communist future has never wavered.
One of the crimes of modern revisionism is that it separates the working class from its history. So, we wanted to bring Jack here to honour him, to show our love and respect for him. But we also wanted to do something that is even more important - we wanted to enable the younger generations to learn from his experience and example.
The class struggle throws up many new situations, but in approaching and defining our line of march, we do not start from a blank sheet. The works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin are there; the works of Chairman Mao, President Kim Il Sung, Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara and Dimitrov; the experiences and achievements of the socialist countries, especially the Soviet Union and China; the life and work of comrades like Jack, his wife Mairie, his late brother Michael and the other members of his family. Together, all this represents the collective wisdom of the international communist movement, which we have a duty to study and apply. This is the greatest thing that the communists bring to the working class movement as a whole.
President Kim Il Sung titled his memoirs "With the Century". It is a term that could well be applied to Jack's life and work, too.
Jack was born in 1916. At that time, betrayed by the forces of the Second International, the working classes of Europe were slaughtering each other in the trenches of France and on the eastern front. That year, at Easter, in the Irish capital of Dublin, the proletarian socialist forces of James Connolly and the Irish Citizens Army joined forces with the revolutionary nationalist forces of Paidrig Pearse and the Irish Republican Brotherhood to declare: "We serve neither King nor Kaiser but Ireland."
Summing up the lessons of the Easter Rising, which he defended from all its detractors, Lenin wrote: "It is the misfortune of the Irish that they rose prematurely." However, in the unity forged between the working class and the revolutionary national movement it created a template which went on to score tremendous victories throughout the twentieth century, especially in China, Korea and Vietnam.
Furthermore, little more than a year later, the Great October Socialist Revolution, the defining event of the century, indeed of human history to date, was victorious. This earth shattering event, ripping one sixth of the globe out of the clutches of imperialism and creating the first human society, since the dawn of slavery, not based on exploitation and oppression, could not but make the greatest impression throughout the world, could not but act as a beacon to everything youthful and progressive, as oppressed humanity sought to find its way from darkness to light.
As Comrade Mao Zedong said: "The salvoes of the October Revolution brought us Marxism-Leninism." It brought it not only to China, but also to the East End of London, a place of grinding poverty, the scene of the strike struggles of the dockers and the matchgirls, the birthplace of New Unionism. Here were to be found English, Irish and Jewish proletarians, sailors from China, India and Somalia. Together, they created a vibrant working class community and culture, forged in the struggle for survival and the class struggle.
Here was where Jack grew up and became a communist. As a little boy, he would have been aware of the general strike of 1926 and the terrible privations that were inflicted on the heroic mining communities. As the 1930s dawned, capitalist crisis saw important sections of the bourgeoisie turn towards fascism, seeking to impose open, terroristic dictatorship on the working class and demagogically seeking to divide the class with vile racist ideas, specifically and especially anti-Semitism.
Lenin had aptly described Tsarist Russia as a "prison house of nations," and, indeed, it had been above all the anti-Semitic pogroms that had driven Jewish people from Russia, Poland, Lithuania and elsewhere to seek a better life in cities such as London.
Faced with poverty, exploitation, racism and the threat of fascism, how, therefore, could the advanced proletarians not be inspired by the fact that in the Soviet Union, the workers and peasants were building a new society, based on meeting their needs, were following a foreign policy of peace not war, and where advanced culture was thriving as never before, including the rich culture of the Jewish people and all the other hitherto oppressed and downtrodden nations and nationalities across that vast land.
Like many of his contemporaries, as a teenager, Jack joined the Young Communist League and later the Communist Party of Great Britain. Unlike many, to paraphrase the words of our anthem, The International, he remains standing in his place. He chose to march down a certain road and over more than seven decades, he has never looked back.
Jack came to know and work with many of the greatest leaders of our communist movement, like Harry Pollitt, Shapurji Saklatvala, after whom this hall is named, and Willie Gallacher.
As we have seen in the film, he was at the Battle of Cable Street and he always actively defended his community and the class from fascism and other class enemies.
Bad housing was a very important issue and Jack and his brother Michael paid particular attention to tenants' struggles. Michael both lectured on housing matters as an academic and served as Secretary of the Stepney Tenants Defence League. Describing this work, the Communist MP, Phil Piratin, in his book, Our Flag Stays Red, wrote:
"Looking back, one can truly say that the tenants' and residents' struggles of those days were among the finest in our history...in the course of those months hundreds and thousands of folk, who had mildly carried the burden placed on them, not only rebelled, but began to see who were the exploiters and their real enemies."
S. Glynn, an academic at Edinburgh University, in his article, 'East End immigrants and the battle for housing: a comparative study of political mobilisation in the Jewish and Bengali communities', published in the Journal of Historical Geography in July 2005, wrote of a 2002 interview he conducted with Jack as follows:
"Piratin's account of the tenants' movement can be criticised for being too personal and oversimplified, especially to the exclusion of activity outside Stepney and the Party. And although it is made to appear a seamless part of the Communist battle plan, at the time the significance of the tenants' movement and its relationship to the class struggle remained the subject of critical debate. Jack Shapiro - who was then a Party activist and recalls campaigns organised from his family home as early as 1933, before Piratin's story begins - also remembers a long analytical discussion in the Party's London District Office as late as 1938, when the line was put forward that the movement 'could have meaning for developing people who could come into the class struggle, but wasn't the class struggle itself'."
In this, Jack echoes Lenin's famous observation of strikes as "a school of war but not the war itself".
Glynn's article continues:
"As the momentum grew, some of the cannier landlords chose to negotiate and sign collective agreements before strike action could be organised, and others recognised defeat after a week or two; but the owners of Langdale and Brady Mansions held out for twenty-one weeks. When they obtained court orders to have the striking tenants evicted, the barricades went up. Max Levitas [and I believe a number of us will also remember the Levitas family - KB], who lived in Brady Mansions and was convenor of the strike committees, explained in a recent interview how such strikes demonstrated another aspect of class unity:
'We were fighting the Jewish landlords the same way as we'd fight any landlord that increases rents, doesn't care if he repairs flats, so forth and so on: these are the enemies of the people...'
"The strikes also proved the determination of the women, who bore the brunt of these struggles and sometimes found themselves picketing through weeks of winter cold. In fact the Communists saw this movement as a possible way of recruiting more women members. Levitas, who met his wife through the strike, tells of the Brady women throwing down 'hot water, hot potatoes, hot coals' on police and bailiffs attempting to storm their barricades over the roof of a neighbouring garage."
This is just a little of what I mean by the necessity to study and learn from our rich history and our veteran comrades like Jack. We have no need to reinvent the wheel.
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels wrote:
"The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: (1.) In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. (2.) In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole."
Internationalism is therefore intrinsic to communism and so to Jack and the other comrades in his family. Jack's wife and close comrade Mairie, joined the communist movement in Poland, at a time when the Party was illegal and underground.
But above all the Shapiro family came to cast in their lot with the Chinese revolution. In 1945, the Communists' work in the East End saw the election to Parliament of Phil Piratin and of a group of 12 communists to Stepney Council, led by Michael Shapiro. A recognised expert on housing issues, Michael was a steeled comrade and a nationally known leader. But, in 1949, immediately after the founding of the People's Republic, Michael was one of four comrades who stepped forward in response to the appeal for assistance made by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China to Harry Pollitt. He left for Beijing, the city that was to become his home until his death in 1986.
Shortly after his arrival in China, US imperialism started the Korean War. When the war reached to the very borders of China, and placed the newly born People's Republic in jeopardy, the Chinese people responded to the call of Chairman Mao and the Party to: "Resist US aggression, Aid Korea, Defend the Motherland and Safeguard our homes". When the Chinese People's Volunteers marched into Korea, Michael, now attached to the Xinhua News Agency, whose representatives are especially welcome tonight, marched with them.
Whilst in Korea, Michael had some contact with the British Prisoners of War, giving them political talks, facilitating their letters home (indeed many of the PoWs were at best semi-literate and Michael helped them to learn to read and write properly) and helped them organise their social and cultural life - perhaps so far the only cricket teams to have existed in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea!
Like US imperialism, British imperialism was incensed, not only by their defeat at the hands of the heroic Korean and Chinese peoples, but also that so many of the PoWs realised how they had been misled into participating in an unjust and aggressive war.
As today over Iraq, so then, the government hit back with a 'dodgy dossier'. The 1955 Ministry of Defence 'Blue Book' on the treatment of British PoWs in Korea featured lurid allegations that Michael, as well as Comrade Alan Winnington, had been complicit in the ill-treatment and torture of prisoners. Speaking from the comfort and safety of the House of Commons, MPs demanded that Michael be hanged as a traitor should he ever return to Britain and the government refused to renew his passport. For Jack and Mairie, with statements such as that being made in parliament, and with the press being predictably hysterical and vile, let me just say, with considerable understatement, that these were not easy times.
Regarding the allegations, Neil Redfern has written in the Communist History Newsletter as follows:
"Shapiro dismissed the allegations as 'rubbish', whilst Neal Ascherson has pointed out that 'nobody has ever come forward to substantiate [the charges] and many have stoutly denied it'. It is noteworthy in this respect that MoD reports on the debriefing of prisoners of war make no mention of Winnington or Shapiro, referring only to the activities of 'English speaking Chinese'. Their names surfaced only a year or so later, when publication of the 'Blue Book' was first mooted. This project was a response to government anxieties about the effectiveness on returned prisoners of communist 'indoctrination'. ... Ascherson's point, an opinion from the government's law officers pointing out that there was no hard evidence that Winnington and Shapiro had been involved in the ill-treatment of prisoners and a letter to the MoD from Winston Churchill's private secretary, indicating that Churchill believed 'the sooner the booklet is published the better', all suggest that the allegations are best treated as black propaganda."
As I said, Blair did not invent the 'dodgy dossier' and it seems that Winston Churchill, too, had his Alistair Campbell!
Michael settled down in China, continued to work for Xinhua and also participated in revising and editing the English translations of Chairman Mao's Selected Works, along with his poetry. He married an eminent Chinese child psychologist, Comrade Liu Jinghe, who had first joined the communist movement whilst studying in the United States of America and was one of the first patriotic scientists to return home after the founding of New China.
When Jinghe passed away in 2004, her official obituary noted:
"A psychologist enjoying high prestige and commanding universal respect, Jinghe loved the country and was loyal to the cause of child research. Even during the 10-year chaos of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when she was vilified and persecuted in a harsh environment, her faith in communism remained firm.... Throughout her life, Jinghe always put strict demands on herself but was generous to others, sticking to a simple style and remaining warm and sincere to people. Swift, sharp and full of wisdom, she was amiable and easy to approach. Her noble character made her a role model for young people, and she was described by her colleagues as having a unique 'magnetism' to attract those around her. People took her for their teacher and friend and would love to confide to her and work with her under her guidance. She was elected deputy to the Third National People's Congress, China's top legislature, and was commended a national pace setter for women by the All-China Women's Federation. She was also awarded as an outstanding Communist Party member by the Chinese Academy of Sciences on many occasions. Once a member of the Executive Committee of the All-China Women's Federation and a member of the experts committee of the Chinese Children's Development Centre, Jinghe was among the first scientists who were awarded to enjoy special subsidies from the State Council for their special contributions. But she was never conceited despite all these honours. She often inspired herself by the saying that 'unaware of the setting sun, the old ox will strive hard on its own without being whipped'.
"Jinghe was also a worthy wife, mother and friend who loved life and her family. Married to Michael Shapiro, the late British expert working with the Xinhua News Agency, she and her husband cherished deep feelings for and helped each other for several decades, going through all kinds of storms and sharing joys and sorrows. She was an endearing mother to her children and brought them up well. To colleagues and friends she was faithful and always ready to help. Despite illness in her later years, she remained optimistic and vigorous, having the world in her mind, which fully displayed her noble and lofty ideals."
Michael and Jinghe had two sons, Jack's beloved nephews, one of whom we are so pleased has flown all the way from Beijing especially to honour us with his presence tonight.
As Jinghe's obituary suggests, and again as we saw in the film, the Cultural Revolution also saw the Shapiro family face trials and tests, but none of them wavered. Chinese leaders, starting with Premier Zhou Enlai, repeatedly and publicly apologised to Michael and his family for the wrong things that happened.
Comrade Deng Xiaoping gave a correct and worthy assessment when he praised Michael Shapiro as "a staunch international soldier and sincere friend of the Chinese people".
It is an accolade that belongs equally to Jack.
Of course, Jack's internationalism is by no means confined to his staunch support for the Soviet Union, China, Korea and other socialist countries, as important as that is.
He forged a particular friendship with Comrade E.F. Hill, the founder and Chairman of the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist), and for many years wrote as the British correspondent for their newspaper Vanguard, which he continues to distribute to interested comrades.
From the very start, Jack rejected the British Road to Socialism, with its insidious thesis of a supposed "socialist colonial policy". Jack worked with the late Trinidadian communist, Claudia Jones, who was also employed by Xinhua for a time, and who started the Notting Hill Carnival, and many others, to bring solidarity with the anti-colonial struggles and the national liberation movements to the fore. He has never ducked the question of the impact of imperialism on the working-class movement through its creation of a labour aristocracy based on a small proportion of imperialist super profits.
Jack has always resolutely supported the struggle of the Irish people against British imperialism. Indeed, this was one of his formative influences. The previously cited article by S. Glynn refers again to the author's interview with Jack, stating:
"The Jewish community was still very separate socially, but the Communist Party introduced young Jews to a wider world, as they campaigned outside the old boundaries and sang Irish songs with their Catholic comrades."
Above all, Jack deserves the highest respect and praise for his staunch opposition to zionism. Jack is rightly proud of his Jewish heritage, of the Jewish people's truly immense contributions to human culture and civilisation. Indeed, one reason why he continues to uphold the Soviet Union of Comrade Stalin is because it was the Red Army under J.V. Stalin's leadership that saved the Jews from genocide and it was also under Stalin's leadership that Jewish culture was able to flourish as never before. But, like his long-time friend and comrade Jack Gaster, who passed away earlier this year, Jack has always considered the attempt to use zionism to create an imperialists' cats paw in the Middle East as not only a monstrous injustice to the Palestinian people, but also as a dead end and a trap for the Jewish people. Those of you who read the Morning Star will see that, in his periodic letters published there, Jack continues to speak out in support of the peoples of Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq, and their resistance movements. He has encouraged people to read Harpal Brar and Ella Rule's book on imperialism in the Middle East, describing it to me as the best book on its subject. As Chairman Mao said of Dr. Norman Bethune, all this represents "the spirit of internationalism, the spirit of communism", from which we must all learn.
As we have seen, Jack has never let adversity stand in his way and that extends to his approach to illness and disability. For a very long time, he has suffered from tinnitus, the perception of sound in the human ear in the absence of corresponding external sounds. The sound perceived can be a signal loud enough to drown out all outside sounds. It is, incidentally, the same ailment that afflicted Beethoven. But like the great composer, Jack has never allowed this painful and distressing condition to stand in the way of his creative work. Instead, it has also made him a fighter for the rights of people with disabilities. For many years, he has held leading positions in such prestigious organisations as the Royal National Institute for the Deaf and, forging the broadest possible alliances there, he has also done a great deal to extend practical help to people with disabilities in China.
Modern revisionism is another adversity that Jack has sought to overcome. Although often disappointed by the results, he has never failed to take a positive and supportive attitude to all attempts to rebuild the Marxist-Leninist party that in this country was undermined and finally liquidated altogether. Despite all the setbacks, I think Jack has never wavered in his certainty that the Party can and must be rebuilt.
In the mid-1970s, the Communist Party of China published an editorial entitled, 'Proletarians are revolutionary optimists'. It is a good way to describe Jack. Among the many books to be found on the shelves at his home is a well-worn copy of Nikolai Ostrovsky's great novel, How the steel was tempered. In Jack, we see a truly heroic figure of the kind described there, one who can justly say: "All my life and all my strength have been devoted to the finest cause on earth, the liberation of mankind".
Thank you, Jack.
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