Issue 218 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 1998 Copyright Socialist Review

Why I became a socialist: John Witzenfeld

My parents were Jewish and I was born in the East End although I didn't live there. We lived in Lambeth, behind the Old Vic, in the 1930s. I was evacuated to Yeovil during the war. My father did some work for Lillian Baylis to get through the depression. He made costumes for her and got one of my uncles to make them up. My father also had a secondhand clothes stall and he was a member of the Tailor and Garment Workers' Union.

My mother was one of seven sisters. She had come over from Poland before the First World War with all her sisters to avoid the pogroms. She was a big influence on me. My parents were Labour inclined, but I also had relatives who were Communists.

Later I went to live with one of my mothers' sisters in Wales. The paper I saw a lot about the house was the Daily Herald. And a lot of my family were in the rag trade, which I realised at an early age was very exploitative. I was the only boy in the village who passed the 11-plus and went to grammar school where I got seven O levels. After I left school I went into a solicitors' office. There they tried to persuade me to join the local Conservative Club, but I refused.

Then I did national service in Germany for 18 months. While I was in the army my sister Zena took out a subscription for me to the New Statesman. She was already in what was called the Socialist Review Group and after I finished national service she invited me along to meetings. I remember Tony Cliff taught me and another new member called Roger Cox basic Marxism in my sister's flat in north London. So in 1958 I became a revolutionary socialist. When I joined the membership was about 100.

Cliff's book on state capitalism was of fundamental importance. It was a real tool because the idea of state capitalism was not that widely known. We would have fantastic discussions with other comrades about the nature of Russia.

I was chair of the Young Socialists in Sidcup, where I wrote articles about nuclear weapons, and we went on the Aldermaston marches. I wrote articles for our newspaper, Rebel. Later on I was on the editorial board of Young Guard. In those days we operated within the Labour Party but the Labour leadership did not like the Young Socialists because our influence there was considerable. Operating in the Labour Party was quite difficult, and there were often witchunts against us. At one point Hugh Gaitskell and his wife came down to Sidcup Young Socialists. I agreed to meet them and I still have a picture of me and him where I wore my CND badge. Around this time I moved away to a room in my sister's flat. My brother in law and sister were in Hampstead Labour Party and they were expelled for being in the Socialist Review Group. My brother in law was well read in Trotsky's writings, so I had a lot of discussions with him.

I stood for the council in Sidcup in the early 1960s as a Labour Party candidate, but I stood on the politics of the International Socialists. I also went to the Labour Party conference in Blackpool in 1960 with Tony Cliff and Chanie Rosenburg, and there I had the experience of listening to Nye Bevan. He talked the biggest load of waffle for an hour and a half.

Becoming a lawyer influenced me a lot. When the Law Society asked me why I wanted to become a solicitor I said it was so I could use the law both as a shield

to defend people, and as a sword to attack those who needed to be attacked. I never went to university. I did five years articles like an apprenticeship. I was paid the magnificent sum of 4 a week. I did my articles at a firm in Holborn. One of the partners was Lord Silkin, who had been Lewis Silkin in the first Attlee Labour government. I used to brief his son Sam Silkin who became attorney general in a later Labour government.

I was at law school when I met a solicitor who worked for Thompsons, which was the biggest trade union law firm and he got me down to work for him. I became Sydney Silverman MP's managing clerk for nine months just after he got through the abolition of capital punishment. Later on I joined another trade union firm and did trade union work properly. I have been involved in a lot of small cases that don't make the headlines, but nonetheless are very important for the people concerned. If ordinary working people or trade unionists can win compensation then that may seem run of the mill stuff to the newspapers but it is vitally important to the people concerned. Recently I was pleased to be able to help Bookmarks set up in central London.

I went on lots of demonstrations. The earliest I remember taking part in was the famous Committee of 100 sit-down demonstration in Trafalgar Square. I was arrested along with Vanessa Redgrave, John Osborne and others, and it took six coppers to cart me off. But the sergeant who charged me was not the one who arrested me. When it came up in court he swore blind that he arrested me, which was a lie. I cross-examined him and I had brought a book called The Illegality of Nuclear Weapons and so I lectured the magistrate and proceeded to read from the book for about 20 minutes till he got fed up. I was fined two guineas.

Everything that pushes the frontiers of legal processes forward is to be welcomed. The campaigns outside the legal structures are absolutely crucial you cannot just campaign inside the legal profession. Just a few months into a Labour government they are trying to cut legal aid it will be the working class who will suffer because there will be no help for things such as claims for accidents at work. The attack is purely treasury driven. They are not going to cut out the biggest drain on legal aid funds which are cases such as the Maxwell case, or the Saunders or Guinness case. The cost came to millions of pounds in each case and must have been many times more than I have ever got from the legal aid fund in 20 years work.

There is also talk about abolishing juries for fraud trials, but anything that backtracks on juries is a bad thing. Some things are complex but it's still possible to explain them clearly so a jury can understand them. I think it very important not to let people get confused by the mystique of the law.

Now we have a Labour government that has no interest in helping ordinary people witness their attacks on legal aid, single parents and the disabled. This has certainly been the shortest honeymoon period of any Labour government that I've known.


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