Monday, February 25, 2013

Keith Hodgson (1962-2013)

This afternoon I was very sad to learn about the death of Liverpool anarchist Keith Hodgson. Radicalised during the Thatcher years, he was prominent in local activism from the 1980s onwards, until he suffered a debilitating stroke a few years ago. People who knew him far longer than me will no doubt offer a much more complete tribute than I could. But I can describe two memories I will always have of him - the first and last times I met him.

A few people I knew had been kicking around the idea that a new antifascist group should be set up in Liverpool, as an alternative to the liberalism of Unite Against Fascism. I heard there was going to be a meeting, so I made my way to the venue, to my annoyance arriving a couple of minutes late, only to discover that only one person had turned up so far. Needless to say it was Keith. I had that sinking feeling in my stomach that will be familiar to many in the 'scene' - it's accompanied by thoughts like 'Why are people always late? Is anyone else going to bother? Am I just banging my head against a brick wall?' Keith felt the same, but still he wore what I discovered was his trademark smile, and he made a few jokes about the situation. As we waited and the sun dipped behind the surrounding buildings, we somehow got to talking about the Spanish revolution - one of his favourite subjects. Eventually, the meeting began in a packed room, and I felt like I had a new comrade.

The last time I met Keith was at the first Liverpool mass meeting on the bedroom tax, in mid-January. Since his stroke, he'd taken a long break from local activism, and I know he found this period extremely frustrating. But he'd started to pop up here and there, and I was delighted to see him. He commented how encouraged he was by the huge turnout and mutinous atmosphere, and he seemed as excited as I was about the prospects for a direct action campaign on the issue. I'm glad to say the anti-bedroom tax movement has mushroomed since, and it would be a great tribute to him if we made it the success it needs to be, and finally started to turn the tide against the ruling class onslaught he'd struggled against almost his entire adult life. Whatever happens, his contribution to the cause of working class emancipation will live on in everyone who worked alongside him.

The following is a repost of an article on the Spanish revolution, which Keith wrote for Nerve magazine in 2006: 

'Madrid Today - Merseyside Tomorrow'
Liverpool & the Spanish Civil War, 1936 - 1939

By Keith Hodgson

This year sees the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. In July 1936 the traditional ruling class of Spain - backed by most of the army under General Francisco Franco - tried to overthrow a democratically elected centre-left government that had taken office only five months earlier. However, the initial attempt to seize power failed, due in most part to the resistance of the Spanish working class, which defeated the rebellious troops in many of the large cities. What had begun as a coup attempt turned into a civil war.

While the Spanish war had its own complex causes, and though resistance to Franco took on a revolutionary character in large parts of the country, it was seen by many people outside Spain as a straight fight between democracy and fascism. But the British government refused to act, supporting a bogus 'non-intervention' agreement signed by the major European powers that saw the Madrid government prevented from buying arms for its defence, while Hitler and Mussolini sent troops and equipment to aid Franco's forces.

Anti-fascists around the world were horrified - though not surprised - by the passivity of the democratic governments. By 1936 appeasement was the preferred policy of Britain and France. But for many ordinary people, the prospect of fascism taking power in yet another European country was too much to bear. Huge solidarity movements sprang up in many countries, raising money and sending food and supplies to help the people of Spain. In addition, around 40,000 foreigners went to fight fascism in Spain in defiance of their own governments. Over two and a half thousand Britons fought there, with over five hundred killed. £50,000 was raised by public subscription to help the families of these fallen volunteers.

In Britain, organisations like the Aid Spain movement and the Spanish Medical Aid Committee reflected widespread popular support for the anti-fascist cause. Around £2 million was donated in Britain during the civil war, with the Medical Aid Committee alone raising £60,000 to send ambulances and crews to Spain. Thirty ships were chartered by British campaigners between 1936 and 1939, which were then loaded with food and sailed through the naval blockade to Spain. Almost four thousand Spanish and Basque children - many of them orphans - were evacuated to Britain, where political parties, trade unions and church groups combined to provide accommodation and education.

On Merseyside there was widespread sympathy for those resisting Franco. The Merseyside Spanish Aid Committee took collections in factories and on the docks, and in many workplaces people put in extra shifts and donated the pay. Opposition to fascism had a cultural aspect in Liverpool too. Merseyside Left Theatre (forerunner of today's Unity Theatre) performed plays about Spain to packed houses. The Left Theatre cast - together with other local activists - clearly linked the war in Spain with the struggle against fascism in Britain. Liverpool was the scene of several large and successful demonstrations against Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists. Adverts for Left Theatre productions opened with the words 'Madrid Today - Merseyside Tomorrow'.

In 1938, local activists chartered a ship, loaded it with food and sent it to Spain. Campaigners even persuaded large firms to become involved. Local companies such as Lever Brothers, Crawford's and Bibby's donated money and food, and Harold Bibby chaired the local Spanish Aid Committee. Bibby's two sons fought in Spain in the International Brigades, and one was killed at the battle of Jarama in February 1937. Merseysiders were also part of the network that helped look after Spanish and Basque children, with many being cared for at the Nazareth House and Roman Catholic Girls' orphanages in Liverpool, as well as at sites on the Wirral.

Another means of helping the Republican cause appeared when the crew of a Spanish ship - the SS Linaria - refused to set sail from Liverpool for Spain. The Linaria was carrying nitrate, which the crew believed was bound for Franco's forces and would be used to make explosives. When the ship's owners charged the crew with mutiny, they sought the help of a local lawyer, Sydney Silverman. In court, Silverman argued that to deliver the cargo would breach the government's commitment to the Non-Intervention Pact. The judge agreed, and the Linaria didn't sail.

But the most dramatic contribution was that of the local volunteers who travelled to Spain to fight against Franco. Around 130 Merseysiders - including two Liverpool City Councillors - fought in the International Brigades and other anti-fascist militias. Twenty eight local men were killed during the desperate and ultimately unsuccessful war against Franco. Many of those who returned home not only fought fascism again during the Second World War, but made major contributions to the labour movement at local and national level. One of them - Jack Jones - went on to lead the Transport & General Workers' Union.

Jones summed up the feelings of all the Merseyside volunteers in a letter, written from Barcelona in July 1938. Attacking the appeasement policy of the British government, he wrote: “We believe that there can be no compromise between fascism and the democratic ideas for which we ourselves have come here to fight”. History proved them right, and the government wrong.
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